China Melamine Suits to Proceed

When one thinks of global mass tort issues, questions of actions by European citizens in U.S. courts or the spate of class actions in Canada may come to mind. Perhaps we will need a broader perspective, as the courts in China have reportedly given the green light to suits arising out of the distribution of tainted dairy products. We have posted on this issue before, within the larger context of product issues arising from goods made in China.

The move signals an apparent change in the way Beijing is handling fallout from the melamine scandal, which was implicate din the death of at least six infants and sickening of nearly 300,000 others with kidney problems. A government-sanctioned compensation plan had been proposed to resolve the issues, but a large number of families have refused government compensation because it is too small, electing instead to try to sue. Under the payout plan organized by the dairies, families whose children died would have received 200,000 yuan ($29,000), while others received 30,000 yuan ($4,380) for serious cases of kidney stones and 2,000 yuan ($290) for less severe cases.

Plaintiffs needed government permission to bring suit, and it remains unclear how the government plans to handle the cases. Chinese courts often turn down class-action or group action suits, preferring to deal with cases one by one to avoid running afoul of Communist Party officials, who ultimately control the judiciary.

The crisis highlighted the need for major overhauls to China's food safety system, culminating in a law passed recently that proposes to consolidate hundreds of regulations covering the country's 500,000 food processing companies.
 

China Melamine Update

Readers of MassTortDefense have been following the issues surrounding the dairy product contamination scandal in China, which we have posted on before.

Two recent developments: The families of 213 children who were sickened by tainted infant formula and milk have now filed a class-action lawsuit with China's highest court, seeking damages from 22 dairy producers. Class actions are rare in China; this one seeks damages mainly for parents whose children were made ill by melamine-laden dairy products, but who were offered what they saw as inadequate compensation by dairy companies. Under that plan, most received $292, while wrongful death cases were offered $29,200. Plaintiffs assert that the lower amounts were not enough to cover what they paid for doctors, medicines and other expenses.


According to the Chinese Health Ministry, nearly 300,000 children were made ill by tainted milk and at least six died. Melamine was reportedly added to milk products to fool protein-content tests.
In order for the class suit to proceed, the China Supreme Court must first agree to hear the case. Court filings in China must be accepted by the courts before they are considered on the merits.

On the criminal side, media reports are that 12 dairy officials were found guilty of charges related to the melamine issue; 2 were sentenced to death, and the highest ranking official was sentenced to life in prison as part of a plea bargain deal. Prosecutors showed that officials at the companies involved learned of the problem in 2007 but did not recall any products until September, 2008. 

In its latest update, FDA notes that there is no known threat of contamination in infant formula manufactured by companies that have met the requirements to sell such products in the United States.  In addition, the FDA -– in conjunction with state and local officials – continues to check Asian markets for food items that are imported from China and that could contain a significant amount of milk or milk proteins.

The FDA has broadened its domestic and import sampling and testing of milk-derived ingredients and finished food products containing milk or milk-derived ingredients from Chinese sources. FDA has recommended that consumers not consume certain products because of possible contamination with melamine.


 

China Melamine Update

China's Dairy Industry Association announced last week that the Chinese dairy companies accused of producing contaminated milk-containing products have agreed to pay compensation.  Reports are that nearly 300,000 people (mostly kids) were sickened, and six reportedly died.  Baby formula was contaminated with melamine, apparently an intentional act to deceive protein quality control testing.  Melamine artificially increases the protein profile of the milk, but can cause kidney damage at higher doses.

MassTortDefense has posted on the issues before.

The settlement includes an immediate payment of $130 million, and $30 million to cover future medical bills for related health problems.  Wrongful death cases will receive a reported $30,000, and seriously sick kids' families will get $4000.  Some 28,000 product users were hospitalized.

Many officials responsible for quality control and inspection of the dairy industry have been fired or indicted.  Trials are ongoing for 17 such defendants, and the former head of the largest dairy outfit was to be charged last week with manufacturing and selling counterfeit goods. That company, the Sanlu Group, ceased operations and filed for the equivalent of bankruptcy in the Fall.

China is also reportedly revising its regulatory approach to the dairy industry, with new safety and quality standards, new testing approaches, and more tools to enable local governments to catch issues.

 

Study Released Of Low Level Melamine Effects In Children

Low doses of melamine did not cause severe kidney problems in children exposed to the industrial chemical during the recent tainted milk scandal arising from China, according to researchers reporting last week. In Lam, et al., Renal screening in children after exposure to low dose melamine in Hong Kong: a cross sectional study, 337 BMJ 2991 (2008), no severe adverse renal outcomes, such as acute renal failure or urinary tract obstruction, were detected in children after exposure to low doses of melamine. The results were similar to initial findings by other scientists in Hong Kong. The prevalence of suspected melamine related abnormalities on ultrasonography was only 0.2%.

The researchers looked at more than 3,000 children aged 12 or younger. All of them had consumed melamine-tainted products for a month or more. Every child was given a urine test, and an ultrasound was performed on their kidneys. Only one child had a kidney stone, and seven had possible melamine-related deposits in their kidneys. An additional 208 tested positive for blood in their urine, a possible sign of kidney troubles.

The study is one of the first to measure the health impact of exposure to low doses of melamine, which was apparently added to infant formula and other foods in mainland China to boost their protein content and help them pass muster on protein tests. Some contaminated products were sold in Hong Kong, but the researchers noted that those products contained much lower concentrations of melamine than the tainted products sold in mainland China.

Since early September, melamine-contaminated baby formula has sickened more than 54,000 children in China and is being blamed for at least four deaths. Melamine has been detected outside China in candies, chocolates, and coffee drinks.  This latest finding may suggest that outside of China, the chances are more remote of a similar level of injury. MassTortDefense has posted on the issues here and here.
 

FDA Issues Import Alert For China Dairy Products

The FDA continues to take action to attempt to limit the impact of the China milk scandal on U.S. consumers. As part of its ongoing strategy to address the present problem with melamine contamination of consumer products exported from the People’s Republic of China, FDA has expanded its import controls on Chinese dairy products, and food and feed products manufactured in China that contain dairy ingredients. Candy, snacks, bakery products, pet food and other Chinese products that contain milk will now be detained at the border until tests prove that they are not contaminated. This action was taken to help ensure that only those Chinese dairy products (and food and feed products manufactured in China that contain dairy ingredients) which are not contaminated with melamine and melamine-related compounds reach U.S. consumers.

No adverse health effects have been reported in the United States from contamination with melamine of dairy products or dairy containing products. But melamine is not approved for direct addition to human or animal foods and no manufacturer is allowed to deliberately add it to any food for U.S. consumers.  Since melamine was discovered in infant formula in September it apparently has sickened more than 50,000 infants in China and killed at least four. Since that time, melamine has been found in a wide range of other products, including milk, eggs and fish feed. Testing by the FDA has detected melamine and cyanuric acid, a related contaminant, in a number of products that contain milk or milk-derived ingredients, including candy and beverages, according to the FDA alert. China is also one of the world’s biggest makers of supplements, and some protein powders and shakes are made largely with powdered milk.


The agency has at times blocked imports of individual food products, but it is rare for it to block an entire category of one country’s foods. The widely spread assessment is that food and feed dealers in China added melamine to their products because it increases nitrogen content to give the appearance in testing that protein levels meet specifications.

Concern has been expressed about delays spilling over to other food imports, but the FDA said the percentage of food subject to the import alert is small. Another possible issue is that private laboratories which perform product tests for FDA compliance already reportedly have long waiting lists. The agency said it won't release the imported food unless an independent laboratory verifies that representative samples contain no melamine or cyanuric acid, a melamine derivative.
At a broader level, one wonders what the alert may do to the recently negotiated opening of FDA offices in China. The timing of the FDA alert coincides with an upcoming  meeting between Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt and top Chinese health officials in Beijing.